Chronic depression can be a vicious cycle. It can feel like there is no way of breaking it, because everywhere we are, and in everything we do, it lurks within the shadows of our existence. It is almost as if we are carrying all this emotional baggage with us wherever we go, all of the time.
But depression is a reaction to a particular event or narrative we play out in our life.
Like all events, depression can only be experienced moment-by-moment. It is always moving, it is always changing, and we experience different ups and downs, but we conceptualize it as one big glob of gloom.
But this train of moments is not without a conductor. It is not like a rainy cloud, which we have no control over, following us wherever we go. Instead, we play an active role in the process, and there are effective ways to limit our suffering and move past strong negative states.
Gratitude towards suffering
Why be grateful for suffering? It sounds a bit counter-intuitive – but perhaps that is part of why you have not been able to let go of these feelings for the past few weeks, months, or years. You have not yet fully accepted them, and you have not opened your eyes to the wisdom your mind and body are trying to reveal.
There is something to be grateful for in regards to all emotions, not just positive ones. If none of us ever experienced suffering or depression or loneliness from time-to-time, we would never know when we are moving in the wrong direction, and we would never adapt properly to changing circumstances. Negative emotions are a signal worth paying attention to.
What disturbs can motivate us towards growth
When I was depressed several years ago my life turned completely grey. I can swear that when I look back at those times there was no color in my world at all. There was no brightness or zest for life, just dullness and apathy. It was my first year in college. I had no friends around. And being the incredibly introverted person that I was, it was difficult to make contact with anyone. I became a recluse, and I didn’t like it.
Being roommate-less and alone, I only left the vacancy of my dorm for two reasons: classes and food.
At least during those times when I left my dorm I was around people. But the most discomforting moments were the times laying in my bed, unable to sleep, and thinking how much longer this could last before I would have to end my life. When the thought first entered my mind I was shocked. I never considered myself someone who could end their own existence. “Do I even have the guts to do it?” I would ask myself.
It is within these deep states of contemplation where a catalyst for change can often emerge. I knew I had only a few choices: run away forever, die, or mend things back up and strive for the excellence in life I had always dreamed of.
How to see depression
In a recent post, I described negative states as valuable signs telling us what areas of our life we need to pay greater attention to.
At least, that is how my depression worked for me. My depression felt everlasting – I felt powerless – but when I dived into those feelings, thoughts, and memories, and I explored them with full intent, I noticed that my mind was trying to tell me something. It was telling me, “something has to change, this current path is unsustainable and you need to find what dissatisfies you so that you can overcome it.”
Depression became the cocoon to my butterfly.
Thus I began to search for clues; I turned my depression into a journey. I first began reading the works of NLP co-founder Richard Bandler, and his predecessor, the American psychiatrist and hypnotherapist Milton H. Erickson. These two had a refreshing perspective on mind. They saw it as an entity that is designed to work for you, not against you.
They saw all emotions, thoughts, feelings, beliefs as tools. They could be learned, developed, and understood like anything else. They weren’t there to contribute to your demise – they were there to benefit you – they were solution-generating.
These incredible thinkers also had a way of reframing problems into solutions: Depression wasn’t just a result of a poor or pathetic life, it was the first step towards happiness. This way of seeing mental illness short-circuited my brain, and blew my mind wide open.
Mental health is the development of skills
We perceive time as always moving forward, and this is what we call life. Consequently, things are always changing – we study those things and call it knowledge, or science. As sentient beings, we have the capacity to learn about these things, to retain them in our memory, and apply them to our life to improve conditions.
We are the only beings we know of that can adapt to change in such complex ways. We have thoughts, attitudes, beliefs, perspectives, values, and convictions. These are all tools. We can consciously use them in the same way a carpenter uses a hammer and drill to help make a building.
Like other tools, they are human inventions and imperfect – but they can get us to newer places when we use them in the right context. This can be hard work. Maintaining mental health is not an easy or passive process anymore than building a muscle at the gym is an easy or passive process. Whether you are reading affirmations or taking 1mg of Clonazepam every day, there are no magic potions.
Pathologically, many illnesses originate due to a variety of different biological, psychological, and social factors. While we can’t change our genes, we can change how they are expressed by changing our habits, our environment, our culture, and our relationships. Our destiny is not set in stone, we usually have enough flexibility to make things work.
I want to now touch on a more philosophical concept. Please take a minute or two to reflect on the Yin-Yang:
It is an amazing illustration on the play of opposites in our daily life. The dynamics and evolution of our being.
Note that even on the side of dark there is a bit of light, and on the side of light there is a bit of dark. I think this very strongly alludes to the concept of nonduality that is so prevalent in eastern philosophy. The concept is meant to illustrate that while two things may seem distinct and separate, they are actually intimately connected.
Instead of thinking of depression as a separate entity to happiness, we should see them as part of a single continuum (again, this is actually one of the key concepts I go over in my short ebook).
You can apply this concept to an array of ideas in regards to mental health and well-being:
- Depression is the first step towards happiness.
- Ignorance is the first step towards knowledge.
- Confusion is the first step towards understanding.
- Anxiety is the first step towards confidence.
- Hate is the first step towards love.
- Darkness is the first step towards light.
If you are interested in knowing more about the philosophy of non-duality I recommend this article by Bhikkhu Bodhi from Access To Insight.
Everlasting change is not only our friend but our nature.
The ideas in this post aren’t anything terribly new, but they are always revelatory when they are first discovered by an individual mind. In truth, this way of framing happiness has been echoed throughout the ages, and it is still being reiterated today in various forms (Buddhist psychotherapy, NLP, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, etc.) It is also one of the most prevalent themes in this blog, and I will continue to write about it because I feel this is knowledge worth knowing.